NSBA has launched a new member service called Elevated Solutions, and with school districts across the country facing so many novel operational and fiscal challenges, the timing couldn’t be better: Elevated Solutions provides participating districts with expert advice on making operations more efficient to save money without cutting staff, programming, or educational quality, typically shaving two-percent off district operating costs.

Just as importantly, says Elevated Solutions chief Eric Schnurer, the process can help conserve resources during this critical period of school closures due to Covid-19. “We want to help districts to save money right now,” says Schnurer, “to better position them for the even tighter operations and tighter budgets they’ll face when school resumes.”

There are many things districts can be doing now to conserve cash, Schnurer observes, starting with:

  • Removing cold and frozen foods from cafeterias and shutting down refrigeration in those schools that are not preparing food for distribution. (Districts lacking alternative storage can donate these foods to organizations like Second Harvest, which will redistribute them to families in need.) Smaller districts should centralize food preparation & distribution to save on refrigeration and electricity costs.
  • Going further and shutting down all power supplies – not just refrigeration – in those locations where no ongoing operating technology is being utilized (for example, for distance learning or office operations).
  • Shutting down outside & interior lighting where not needed for security purposes, such as lighting large outdoor parking lots. Where on-going lighting is necessary, ensure that low energy-usage bulbs are installed.
  • Setting schools’ HVAC cooling systems to 78 degrees where cooling is necessary; otherwise, set systems to 80-82 degrees.
  • Shutting down the use of all district vehicles except those used for identified emergency purposes.
  • Reducing insurance coverage on vehicles – not just buses, but also any maintenance vehicles or others unlikely to see usage for the foreseeable future.
  • Shutting down any other utilities such as water not needed for daily operations, if they incur ongoing charges.
  • Eliminating school and district office yard and lawn work expenses.
  • Negotiating with appropriate outside vendors a reduction in costs during months of non-operation.
  • Delaying any purchases of paper goods and other supplies until actually needed.
  • Converting non-instructional personnel who continue working to a 4-day work week.
  • Seeking uses for school space currently going unused: Many businesses and government-response entities are experiencing increased demand and activity in this pandemic and need additional operational space and locations. Instead, of sitting idle, some school buildings could be earning rent.

And, as always, making some investments can actually save on expenses. Schnurer points to the exceptional efforts some districts are making to provide online access to those students and families who lack it. These include stationing Wi-Fi equipped school buses in neighborhoods with low levels of Internet saturation, or, in less densely populated areas, providing Wi-Fi hotspots in school parking lots; many districts are even distributing chrome books to students. This isn’t just an equitable way to keep their education mission going – in the long run, it will prove less expensive than providing and distributing hard-copy lessons and books to students instead, as many districts are being forced to do in this crisis, Schnurer observes. “Better – especially better customer service – generally turns out to be more cost-effective,” Schnurer says, “and nowhere is this truer than in education. And at no time is this more important to remember than now.”

In fact, the entire thrust of the Elevated Solutions program is to help districts to save money by operating smarter – not simply by cutting. It’s something that every school district will need to be doing by this fall, as public-sector entities at all levels begin to feel the consequences of a record-setting economic downturn: State revenues are expected to decline by 20-25% in the new fiscal year, which will have a downstream impact on funding to schools. More localized revenues, such as property taxes, are lagging indicators – meaning that most school districts will see the most serious impacts on their budgets a year or two in the future. All of this means that the time to start considering how to save without cutting needed or desired programming – and to make investments that will improve efficiency and effectiveness in the future – is now.

NSBA is making Elevated Solutions available to districts to do just that.

The Elevated Solutions team consists of former superintendents, principals, educational-services specialists, and government efficiency experts with a track record of achieving results for districts across the country. The project director, Schnurer, is a former gubernatorial chief-of-staff who founded a consulting firm, Public Works LLC, to help public agencies across the country apply the lessons he learned in trimming state budgets to improve, rather than reduce, government services. He has taught these same lessons in public policy programs at such leading institutions as the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Chicago, and Brown University, and written them up in publications like The Atlantic (see his article, The Secret to Cutting Government Waste: Savings by a Thousand Cuts, for more). Public Works is today one of the leading firms in the country carrying out performance and efficiency reviews for state governments and agencies, municipalities and authorities, and education entities and school districts across the U.S.; the firm has reviewed school districts ranging from rural districts in Arizona, South Carolina, Texas and West Virginia to large cities with complex school needs and structures like New Orleans, LA, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

It’s easy to see the relevance of these experiences to today’s circumstances – which is why NSBA brought in Schnurer and his team to create Elevated Solutions for participating districts.

For instance, the school system in West Virginia was spending more per-capita than schools in almost any other state — but achieving poorer student outcomes. That’s when the governor asked Schnurer’s team to examine the state’s education system — from the state capitol to the school lunch line. Public Works’ review identified hundreds of millions of dollars in potential savings, as well as recommendations for investing that money in improved education through greater local school district autonomy, higher teacher pay, cutting-edge technology and curricular improvement. The resulting report has been called the “bible of education reform” in the state.

School districts everywhere can benefit similarly from the combination of bottom-line improvements with the education and service-delivery insights that such comprehensive reviews provide.

The Elevated Solutions “performance review” is not an audit. It is a process that defines how services are provided, how business is conducted, what emerging demands are being placed on schools, districts and their various departments – and how effectively and efficiently are the processes, procedures, policies, technology, and organizations responsible for the services. These performance reviews include a review of data, use of peer district or state data, staff and parent surveys, interviews and focus groups, open parent and community meetings, and the
use nationwide of best practices and metrics. All educational function areas are reviewed including district or state organization and management, educational service delivery for programs such as special education, English Language Learners, career and technology, alternative education, human resources, financial management, transportation, food services, safety and security, facilities, and parent and community involvement.

Above all, Elevated Solutions consultants work with principals and superintendents on putting these savings and revenues into improving district and building leadership, community engagement and student outcomes.

If your district would like to achieve Elevated Solutions in meeting coming fiscal demands while maintaining educational programming and quality, act today, as remaining space in this program for 2020 is limited. Please email eric@ericschnurer.com or ddelgado@nsba.org for additional information.

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